Before you start eating dinner with others in China, a few preliminary steps must be taken: all rice bowls should be filled, everyone must be seated, and you should offer the people sitting next to you (and even better, across from you) food before you start filling your own bowl. “Yao bu yao,” or “do you want this or not?, ” is one of the first phrases I learned in China, and at the start of lunch and dinner, you can hear the chattering of that phrase like a prayer. At home in Texas, I’ve always eaten family style, and this comforting, communal form of dining has become the backbone of my bridge year cohort, much as it is for my own family.
The dichotomy of “individual vs. collective” is often used to describe cultural differences between the West and East. This nebulous binary manifests concretely in dining practices. Dining in China necessitates awareness of the people around you. Tea cups should be filled without asking, so often in fact that two quick taps of your knuckles on the table replaces the time it takes to say “thank you.” Over time, you come to know the dishes people favor and serve them that dish unprompted. You must remain cognizant and inquisitive of the needs and desires of your companions: dining in China aligns well with the construction of healthy group dynamics. At the very least, eating together has strengthened our bridge year group through delicious food and a greater understanding of one another.
In my experience, suburban, American dining is individual. It lacks not only awareness of one’s companions but awareness of the land and the massive, human effort required to put food on the table. Bridge year China spent four days trekking in rural Yunnan, staying in the houses of the Lisu ethnic minority. During our first home stay, I found refuge from the rain in the kitchen; the huo tang, a stove fueled by wood, dried my damp pants as I watched dinner be made– potatoes doused with spice powder, beans cooked and served with pig fat, a light cabbage soup, and eggs, flash fried in a wok cracking with oil. The beans were grown in fields surrounding the house; the potatoes were dug up that afternoon, and the eggs came fresh from the chickens bawking outside. I become increasingly cognizant of the land as a provider and an active, essential participant in my sustained life. Before we left that home, our group picked dew-sprinkled blueberries, their sweetness as seemingly miraculous as the backdrop of our feast: a grand gradient of layered green mountains and the dizzyingly, dazzlingly deep valleys below. The next day, we dug up potatoes, pulling the plant from its soil to reveal a maze of roots and a tou dou or two at each dead end. A far different experience from plucking potatoes from a bin at a grocery store, the simple fact that food comes from the land, once again, felt marvelous.
While internalizing the connection between land and food is essential to appreciating eating, an equally if not more important connection is the human effort necessary to cultivate the Earth and to prepare food. The berries and potatoes felt miraculous; they are anything but. The families, who we were simply passing by, who were graciously allowing us to intrude on their land and their lives, had tended the crops far before we came and will continue to grow them far after we leave. I remain ignorant of the effort and toils that produce my food, and all I can offer is sincere gratitude to those who have provided me with sustenance. One lesson I’ve learned in China: eating is far from a solitary experience.
A couple of days ago, I watched a chicken’s throat be cut for dinner; the blood pooled in a bowl below as the animal twitched, spasmed, then laid still. We placed its body in hot water, and its feathers fell away with the slightest tug. We washed it twice, pulling out its nails and the stubborn ends of feathers, stuck in its skin like blackheads. I brought the chicken into the kitchen and burned off its hair in the fire of the huo tang. Then, after cutting open the chicken, I pulled out its innards: “these are the lungs,” I was told, “its intestines, its stomach, its heart.” Perhaps for the first time I was aware of the fact that what I eat comes from life. Gratitude for this life necessitated that I see the life itself and the process it undergoes to become my food.
I am far from completely appreciating the animals, land, and people that enable my existence. However, gaining awareness of what I eat, similar to understanding who I eat with, takes time. In Lisu culture, the huo tang is the center of family life; it’s not just a stove or a room heater but a gathering place, a space that connects generations through storytelling, a tool that unites the collective. Similarly, dining in China is about more than selfish sustenance. It provides a platform for my small collective, my bridge year family, to grow in understanding of each other and of our food. Throughout this year, it will continue to expand how we think of eating, leaving us with fuller stomachs and fuller hearts.